Within four days of the scuffle, Stewart had earned a spot with the Binghamton (N.Y.) Dusters of the North American Hockey League, the equivalent of baseball's Class A. His days as a professional tough guy had begun. Over the course of the next six years, Stewart played for 11 teams in six leagues, including a 21-game stint with the Quebec Nordiques of the NHL and a 63-game stay with Cincinnati of the World Hockey Association. Stewart was usually listed on the roster as a forward, but he was really the designated fighter.
The stories of Stewart's subsequent on-ice theatrics are well-known in hockey circles. In the fall of '76, Stewart was playing for a Ranger rookie team that went to Quebec to play the Three Rivers Draveurs, a Canadian Junior A team. Stewart's reputation had preceded him, and the Draveurs were ready. In the third period, as Stewart was chasing a puck into his own corner, four players charged him from behind. "They banged into me and drove my head right into the glass," Stewart recalls. "I was pretty dazed. The puck was going somewhere up ice, my legs felt like twisted macaroni. Everybody in the arena was roaring. [Goalie Gilles] Gratton was trying to steer me back to the bench. Then I looked up, my head cleared and I saw the biggest one of the Three Rivers bunch coming down the middle of the ice, looking back for a pass. I took about five or six good strides and hit him with a bodycheck that would flatten anybody. He crumpled like a piece of toilet paper. Then some of their players came over the boards after me. I grabbed Gratton's goalie stick and cleared out a path for myself to make it to my bench and then into the dressing room. I was still a little foggy—the trainer was waving ammonia under my nose. I could hear the cops outside and people trying to get after me. All of a sudden, the door swung open and there was this huge shadow and a puff of cigar smoke. I stood up and said, 'Don't come near me or I'll get you, too.' Turned out it was John Ferguson, the Rangers' general manager. He said, 'Whoa, whoa, Paul, relax. It's me.' "
Ferguson, now vice-president and general manager of Winnipeg, laughs as he remembers the incident now. "He hit that guy so hard. It was a clean check," he says. "When I went down to the dressing room, he thought I was crashing the room."
In 1979 Stewart finally made it to the NHL, having hopscotched his way from the Ranger organization to Quebec. His high point as a player came that Thanksgiving Day, when he played against Boston in his first regular-season NHL game. "I got to Boston, I didn't even need a plane," he says. "I couldn't sleep the night before. The day of the game, I couldn't eat. I was all pumped up. I went to the hotel, knocked on [Quebec coach Jacques] Demers's door, walked in and kissed him right on the face. I was so grateful."
The game was a fight fan's dream. First Stewart took on Bruin tough guy Terry O'Reilly. "You're not the only Irishman in the building tonight," Stewart yelled at O'Reilly just before they dropped their gloves. Then he tangled with Stan Jonathan, and in the final period, with Boston's third big bruiser, Al Secord. As he left the ice after the Secord battle—a third major penalty for fighting means automatic ejection—the crowd went wild over the hometown kid who had just taken on the biggest and baddest of the Big Bad Bruins.
Stewart ran out of teams to fight for soon after that, but he didn't care. "I had done it once," he says. "It's like putting the flag on the top of the mountain—there's no need to do it again. I had proved myself to all the detractors, all the negative people who had stepped on me and pushed me around."
And what of those who saw Stewart as a goon, a symbol of all that's wrong with professional hockey? Stewart is quick to defend himself. "I never fought anybody who wasn't a tough guy," he says. "I never went after a smaller player. I wouldn't have had any respect for myself and, remember, that's what I was after—respect." The term "goon," he says, is a "meaningless catchall phrase."
But if his tough-guy days were over, his tough times weren't. After retiring from hockey in 1981, he drifted for two years, doing substitute teaching, hosting a radio call-in show on Cape Cod, even working part-time for the South Yarmouth, Mass., police department. His marriage, which had been strained to the limit by all the traveling and all the turmoil, fell apart after seven years. Stewart was alone and uncertain, without the urgent motivation he had always felt before. He knew he wanted to stay in sports somehow, but how?
He didn't have to look far from home for an answer. His late grandfather, Bill Stewart, who coached the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 1938," later served as an NHL referee as well as a major league baseball umpire. His father had also been a legendary coach, at Boston English high, as well as an official in hockey, football and baseball. Officiating was in the Stewart genes.
And so, in July 1983, going right to the top as usual, Stewart called Scotty Morrison, then the NHL's vice-president of officiating. "He kind of caught me by surprise," remembers Morrison, who is now president of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. "I knew of his dastardly reputation, but I also knew of his family background. I was a great admirer of his grandfather. I said, 'Paul, are you serious?' He said he was."